Keeping Conventions : When Being Unique is a Bad Thing

December 23rd, 2008
Published on
December 23rd, 2008

While there are plenty of user interactions and visual designs that speak to different people in different ways, there are still some visuals that are universally understood, across a broad range of cultures and groups. We all know that a red, octogonal sign means to stop – and that’s true across cultures, thanks to a Vienna convention on road signs and signals. Everyone who has ever had electricity knows what a light switch looks like. Everyone who speaks English knows that an M on a clothing tag means medium.

A stop sign.

Image by e453753

These universal conventions prevent users from having to make their own deductions regarding the meaning of certain objects and symbols. In order to encourage familiarity with user interfaces, we should make use of these conventions in our visual designs. We can do this through logos, icons, and other recognizable symbols.

Stand out from the crowd

Did your mother tell you to be yourself, and not worry about fitting in? It’s time to forget that advice.

Yes, it’s good to be unique and different and to stand out from the crowd for many things, like finding your personal clothing style, or making decisions on personal safety, but when it comes to using universally recognized imagery, its time to stick with the mainstream.

Let’s take a look at three basic examples where it’s good to ignore your inner creativity.

RSS Feeds

A Standard RSS Icon.

The icon for subscribing to an RSS feed has now become so universal that users recognize it immediately. Since the entire goal of an RSS feed is to increase the number of RSS subscribers, it’s important to keep the RSS button prominent and recognizable. If people have to spend time looking for or deciphering what your RSS button is, it defeats the purpose of having this shortcut. Or worse, they may miss seeing the RSS feed entirely, and you will lose their subscription.

Shopping Cart Buttons

A typical menu with shopping cart buttons.

Shopping carts are one of the most important features in an online store. Having a recognizable shopping cart icon is not only a good idea; it’s come to be expected by users. Customers expect to see a shopping cart, and to be able to click that icon to see the items they have selected or move on to the checkout process. This system began as a way to streamline online shopping, but over the years, it’s turned from a delightful addition into a “table stakes” item – something customers will find the site unusable without.

Search Fields

Google: The Most Popular Search Bar on the net

The search field is another table stakes tool. Site users are sometimes lumped into two groups: the searchers, and the browsers. The browsers will scan a page, looking for the right link or button. But for searchers, they want one thing: the search field, where they can enter exactly what they’re looking for. For those users, it’s key to have the search field in an expected place, and represented by a familiar icon.

It’s All About Ease of Use

The goal of familiar icons and imagery is to make sites easy to use. We want to prevent visitors from having to think too hard! While we all want to be creative geniuses, and it’s tempting to break the mold, these are not the places to do it. We need to unsure recognition, and usability to serve both ourselves and our users better in the long run.

What other online features need to stick to convention?